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Women and Everyday Uses of the Internet: Agency and Identity

Editor: Mia Consalvo, Susanna Paasonen
Publisher: New York: Peter Lang Publishing, 2002
Review Published: July 2005

 REVIEW 1: Deborah Clark Vance
 REVIEW 2: Sarah Whitehead
 REVIEW 3: Kris Byrd
 AUTHOR RESPONSE: Susanna Paasonen

Women and Everyday Uses of the Internet: Agency and Identity, edited by Mia Consalvo of Ohio University and Susanna Paasonen of the University of Turku, addresses the issues of gendered internet usage, identity, and agency. It contains a collection of research which investigates case studies showing why gender matters in regards to online services and communities.

The volume is broken into four sections: "Defining Gender," "Addressing Women," "Everyday Uses," and "Gender, Agency and New Media." Each section is broken into chapters which cover research done by the contributors. The contributors are from different corners of the world, adding to the diversity of the research presented here.

Part One: Defining Gender

Chapters 1-4 deal with understanding and defining the concept of gender online. In chapter one, co-editor Paasonen provides an overview of research and a critique of literature that addresses gender play and the limitations of online gender play. An interesting thing that Paasonen notes is that it is rare that gender switching occurs as a truly exploratory experience of another gender, but rather as a change to act out fantasies or play out stereotypes.

Chapter two by Kate O'Riordan explores the uses of web cameras by women. In this interesting piece, O'Riordan categorizes webcam pages into five different types that range in sexual exposure. Most interesting to me was how the women who use the webcams see the camera as an actor that "watches" them rather than as an inanimate object. What makes it interesting is that the camera isn't doing the watching so much as the viewers or subscribers to the site, but is seems that the "camgirls" have almost disconnected themselves from their viewers in that sense.

Johanna Dorer looks at women who have professional jobs in technological fields and how the Internet contributes to gender construction. Some women used "feminine" forms of self-positioning, meaning they downgraded their job responsibilities and importance of their work. However, even for those who were not shy about their capabilities, the technological questions were nonetheless directed to their male counterparts.

Chapter four by Noemi Sadowska examines design techniques and metaphors used to draw women to the Internet and websites. By design, she is focusing on the visual and textual aspects of websites. In her case study of BEME.com, Sadowska establishes that there is a need for alternative design strategies for engaging women to use websites.

Part Two: Addressing Women

This section looks at how women have been represented on the Internet and the framing of traditional women's roles that occurs in online communities. This may be my favorite section since it combines looking at how the Internet has changed in regards to women, but shows how the stereotypes for appealing to women users as community-seekers is employed.

In chapter 5, co-editor Consalvo explores the relationship between gender and technology. Consalvo researches the representations of the Internet as it changes over time from 1990-1998. She looks into how women were portrayed in relation to the Internet, the metaphors used to help/hinder the understanding of Internet experience for women, and the intersections between the two.

Chapters 6 and 7 both look at different online women's communities. Leda Cooks, Mari Castaneda Paredes and Erica Scharrer specifically look at the online community at Oprah.com in search of understanding how space for community is constructed by women. Oprah.com provides a place the exchange of ideas and opportunities to discuss all things "Oprah," but their analysis lead to the conclusion that "moments of imagination, of creating new possibilities for reshaping or rethinking everyday practices and relationships, are rare" (160). Chapter 7, by Karen Gustafson, looks at aspects of online communities such as the factors that control and monitor behaviors online like policies for membership, and how the communities are designed for framing women into traditional roles such as community-seekers and consumers.

Part Three: Everyday Uses

Chapters eight through ten explore how females might use the internet in their everyday life. Virpi Oksman examines how young girls (ages 10-15) use the Internet to help "broaden our perception of women's attitudes towards technology" (191). Through interviews and surveys, Oksman researches how young girls relate to the technology and whether or not it helped them acquire new computer skills. It seems many girls have a technophobia but the girls who participated in the virtual stables game set up websites and have experience with the web, but there are no definite conclusions for what the virtual stables mean for girls and their relationship to technology. This topic in particular is widely open for more investigation. This could lead to some interesting research on computer games and young females, and how that could encourage more females to enter the world of information technology and computer science as adults.

Chapters nine and ten both look at communities for women to connect as part of their everyday life. Jennifer Tiernan discusses the relationship of women veterans of the Vietnam war and the listserv they used to connect to each other. The listserv provides the women with a place for support and discussion on issues they are not comfortable sharing with their male counterparts. It was interesting to learn how the women did not feel free to talk with male veterans about certain issues, even if both males and females had had similar experiences during the war. Jamie Poster performs an ethnography on the everyday uses of a lesbian chat room, thus adding the dimension of sexuality into the mix of gender issues covered in this volume. Poster looks at the issues of identity and anonymity on the chat site and discusses how the chat site defines lesbians, which gave the reader a feeling of strictness as to who could and could not participate in the chat room.

Part Four: Gender, Agency, and New Media

The last three chapters focus on the adoptions of new media, as well as agency in different settings. S. Elizabeth Bird and Jane Jorgenson look at the digital divide and how a program called "Family net" in Florida is trying to alleviate the stress of parents who cannot provide computers for their children. This was the most interesting chapter for me, given my interests in gender roles in or displayed for children. In their research, Bird and Jorgenson found that the mothers play an influential role in a child's education, where the father is less involved. They also found that the mothers had more experience with using the technology than the fathers had, which was interesting since computers started out as a male dominated technology. Because of their family experiences, argue the authors, the children may grow up perceiving the computer to be a more feminine tool.

Marja Vehvilainen, in the next chapter, explores how politics, particularly liberal politics, interact with the agency of women's information and communication technology (ICT) groups in a local setting. According to Vehvilainen, "the welfare state, organizational practices, and gender relations are social and material orders that contribute to located agency" in a society that is technologically mediated (287.) These factors, among others, play a role in shaping agency of a locale. The Finnish women's ICT groups that she studied were good for women's learning of technology but did not openly articulate the relationship between gender and technology. At one point, the women's group "chose an affirmative path" allowing for women to make ICT their own (188), but at the second phase, the group dynamics shifted as women instructors were replaced by men, and the technology was presented as neutral and the same for everyone using it.

In the last chapter, Liesbet van Zoonen and Chris Aalberts look at young couples' everyday usage of interactive television. Through interviews, they gained knowledge of how couples use their PCs, the Internet, and their televisions. From their interviews, it seems that PC and television use is still male-dominated. In the couples interviewed, men usually had control of the remote, but would be respectful if their partner liked or disliked a show, or sometimes one partner would simply watch TV on another set. Most interesting is that according to the authors, their findings "suggests a more equal, deliberative culture around the television" (307). Regarding interactive television, which will allow viewers to choose what they watch and when, couples seemed skeptical of the technology, as it takes away from the shared experience of watching TV together.

Impressions

The separation between parts was a little unclear at times. Both sections two and three contained research focusing on communities and as a reader chapter four seemed to fit better under "Addressing Women" than under "Defining Gender." However these are minor issues.

One thing that would make a nice addition to a second edition is to include a chapter on online communities formed by women bloggers. It would fit in well with the rest of the book, as it could contain content on designs women bloggers use, the identities they create, and the everyday use of blogs. It would be interesting to consider what they do or do not blog about and how their blogs reflect (or do not reflect)women's "traditional" themes. It is likely this wasn't included because blogging was not nearly as popular a few years ago as it is now, but this is definitely a growing area of interest.

In sum, Mia Consalvo and Susanna Paasonen's Women and Everyday Uses of the Internet: Agency and Identity, is much needed in a time where women's appearance on the web is growing and women's usage is on the rise. It is important to understand what's carried over to the internet from traditional media forms, especially in terms of women stereotypes, and the impacts of that. This book sets the framework and is a good read for students or classes concerned with media and gender studies. It serves as a strong starting point for inspiring future research and study. The conclusions of each chapter provide a good sounding board for what future research questions could be in the field of feminist and new media research.

Sarah Whitehead:
Sarah Whitehead is a graduate student at University of Buffalo's School of Informatics, studying in the Department of Communication. She has special interests in gender differences, especially in gender formation in children. She is currently working with Alexander Halavais on the blogging agenda and also has an interest in social learning and gaming.  <sw54@buffalo.edu>

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